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Paying the Price

In this week’s general election, Rishi Sunak’s government was removed from office, as many voters who backed Reform revoked their 2019 support. Sunak had failed to honour the Brexit legacy bequeathed by Boris Johnson, who had also set in train the work to restore UK law, explains Sheila Lawlor, Politeia’s Founder and Director. As a result, the prime minister brought the Conservative Party to its worst ever result.

Few British elections have been so foregone a conclusion in the past century: the 2024 victory for Labour was Sir Keir Starmer’s to fight for.  And fight he did throughout the campaign, promising what was needed, but no more, to make the opinion polls a reality on the day of reckoning. Labour duly won a long-predicted victory, totalling 412 seats (up 211) but with a smaller vote share of 34 per cent than we were led by the polls to expect. He won fair and square, his strategy of even-handedness between the country and his party paying off. He had ruled out the more poisonous Corbynista past, which he had done so much to shape, anti-Brexit and anti-Semitic, while ruling in the favoured agenda of the left, a big state and Corbynista class-hatred, with taxes to penalise private schools and punish non-doms.

Rishi Sunak and his Conservatives lost 250 seats, with only 121 MPs returned and 24 per cent of the vote – the fewest seats and the smallest vote share in the party’s history. Sunak’s defeat owes much to a failure more obvious than that over which he presided as Chancellor. Then he did not take account of the consequences of fiscal and monetary policy for the cost of living and inflation in his remit to officials and the Bank of England’s governor. But in the general election he has paid a heavy price for his failure to honour the Brexit mandate and continue the work to achieve its benefits set in train in 2020. As a result 14 per cent of the voters across the UK backed Reform, the only party for which following Brexit through is a priority, giving it the third largest share of the vote, five seats and allowing it to finish in second place in a hundred odd constituencies.

Indeed, these general election results reveal how far many voters understand the consequences of being betrayed on Brexit.  The country’s economic law remains, for the most part, tied to the EU. Its entrepreneurs and its small businesses must wrestle with the codes, protectionism and prohibitions of a legacy of EU law.  Johnson had, despite the pandemic and suspension of normal parliamentary business as a result, ushered in a new regime to rid the UK of the dead hand of EU law. Sunak backtracked. His about-turn secures the place of most EU law unless it is decided to modify or remove it, with the exception of a few hundred rulings irrelevant to this country and its overall economic well-being. Even worse is the position of financial services, where EU law and regulation continue to stifle the City and its entrepreneurs. Throughout his tenure of office Sunak surrendered to the EU’s machinations to tie the UK into its system and prevent its becoming an invigorated, successful independent economy.

Having played a pivotal part in the ousting of Boris Johnson, who won the conclusive Brexit victory in 2019 and Brexit-supporting seats in the north and midlands, Sunak set about reversing the progress made on achieving Brexit’s gains. The proposal to end the open-ended sunset-clause on thousands of pieces of cumbersome EU regulations and law under the REUL (Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill was dropped. Instead, only a paltry schedule of 600 or fewer pieces of law faced the chop. Had the full measure gone through, the UK would have been on course to escape the burdensome demands and costs imposed on production by retained EU protective legislation, which pushed costs up and kept the cost of living high.

So too with the Financial Services and Markets Bill, the original aim of which was to set the City free from the EU rulebooks and restore UK law, enabling this dynamic sector to compete globally at full throttle. In 2020 the plan was for much of the codified architecture of the EU rulebook to be ended. But in the final event the Sunak government drove through a Bill keeping some of the worst pieces of EU law for the sector, opaque and byzantine in complexity. Many, such as MIFID II (which introduced 1.4m paragraphs of rules) will be left to the discretion of the Europhile treasury civil service and its official regulators to keep, modify or remove as they please.

The most blatant betrayal was over Northern Ireland: its economy will now remain under EU Single Market law, effectively a Brussels fief, under a deal struck with Ursula Van den Leyen, the Windsor Framework. Presented with all the razzmatazz of the BBC’s ‘spin room’, to be coo-ed and billed at by the pro-EU media and the official establishment as signifying a welcome change in Britain’s relations with Brussels, it introduced operational changes to the checks imposed on products for Northern Ireland from GB. In return, the UK dropped the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill to disapply parts of parts of the Protocol in UK law. The reality is the surrender to the EU of UK sovereignty.

The real story of the 2024 election is therefore Brexit: Brexit silenced, Brexit denied and Brexit betrayed. On this central question Britain’s two main parties remained silent throughout the campaign, ignoring the need to report on the mandate given last time round.

Mr Sunak’s final plea to the electorate on the eve of polling day, ‘Don’t surrender your voice’, struck an ironic note for many who voted for his party in 2019. Throughout his tenure of the highest political office, Rishi Sunak surrendered the voice of this country and its economic interests to comply with the EU. He failed to end the stultifying economic impact of EU restrictive laws or drive through the preparations and schemes he inherited to make Brexit and economic reality. His government prevaricated on decisively restoring Britain’s own law over swathes of the economy, a law which for centuries facilitated freedom, encouraged competition and a vibrant market economy and brought prosperity to millions at home and overseas. Above all he failed to honour the mandate won in 2019 by his predecessor to restore UK law and sovereignty. Brexit has not gone away: despite the attempts to silence it, despite the failure to honour its mandate, it has led to the ousting of the Tories from government, and their Prime Minister from No 10.

Dr Sheila Lawlor

Dr Sheila Lawlor (Baroness Lawlor) is Politeia’s Founder and Research Director. She served as its executive director from 1995-2020, developing the constitutional, economic and social policy programme with UK and international specialists. Her background is as an academic historian of 20th century British political history, having started her working life as research fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and Churchill College, Cambridge. Her academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War 1940-41 and for Politeia she has written on social, economic and constitutional policy. She was made a Life Peer in October 2022.

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